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Perspective | What does the Leandro report propose for early childhood?

A report released Tuesday makes strong recommendations about how North Carolina can meet its obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every child. There are specific recommendations around early childhood (birth through third grade), many of which align with actions prioritized in the Pathways Action Framework, and the Pathways initiative is called out as a resource used to craft the early childhood education section of the report.

The 300-page report was written and released by WestEd, an independent consulting firm directed by the judge in the Leandro court case to propose recommendations to meet the mandate laid out in the Leandro ruling — that every child in North Carolina receive a sound, basic education.

The report’s recommendations fall into the following categories:

  • Finance and resource allocation.
  • A qualified and well-prepared teacher in every classroom.
  • A qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.
  • Early childhood education.
  • High-poverty schools.
  • State assessment system and school accountability system.
  • Regional and statewide supports for school improvement.
  • Monitoring the state’s compliance.

There are relevant recommendations for birth through third grade throughout the report. The report is divided into Findings and Recommendations.

Findings in the early childhood education section include:

  • High-quality early childhood education is available in North Carolina. Smart Start and NC PreK are highlighted.
  • Access to and participation in high-quality early childhood education varies in North Carolina, however, and lower-wealth communities often lack an adequate supply of early childhood programs.
  • Costs and other challenges for communities and families create barriers to accessing early childhood education.
  • Lack of ability to supply the necessary numbers of qualified teachers is an additional barrier to expansion and increased access to early childhood education.
  • The transition from early childhood education environments to K–12 environments is challenging for children and families.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Increase the volume and quality of the early childhood educator pipeline, including by:
    • Expanding the WAGE$ and AWARDS salary supplement programs.
    • Achieving salary parity among NC Pre-K teachers in private and public settings.
    • Increasing funding for child care subsidies.
    • Implementing ongoing professional development that supports learning in critical areas of practice like child development, trauma-informed care, social-emotional development, and early literacy.
  • Scale up the Smart Start program to increase quality, access, and support for at-risk children and families.
  • Expand the NC Pre-K program to provide high-quality full-day, full-year services to all at-risk four-year-old children, including by:
    • Improving data collection, analysis and use.
    • Increasing the NC Pre-K reimbursement rate to providers to increase supply.
    • Expanding to full-day, full-year programming.
    • Offering incentives for high quality preschools in high-need areas to become NC Pre-K sites.
    • Supporting facility improvements.
    • Providing transportation.
  • Support successful transitions to K–3 and promote early-grade success, including by:
    • Expanding effective professional development for principals in early childhood education.
    • Funding teaching assistants through third grade.
    • Investing in support staff, such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers, to meet the social-emotional, behavioral, and physical health needs of young children.
    • Supporting preschool providers and schools to engage with families at kindergarten transition.

Most of the recommendations in the early childhood education section focus on NC Pre-K. However, the section about scaling up Smart Start allows for the full birth through age five spectrum. One recommendation in that section specifically states: “Augment current funding and infrastructure for programs for children aged 0 through 3 (e.g., home visits, child care subsidies, home-based child care, and private child care/Pre-K for eligible 3-year-olds) to build and maintain a robust array of early childhood programs with a high-quality workforce.”

There are also recommendations in every other section of the report that are important for children in the early grades (K-3rd), and many of the recommendations align with priorities in the Pathways Action Framework. A sampling of these include:

On funding:

  • Prioritize higher-need students and school districts in funding formulas and provide local flexibility in allocating those resources.
  • Focus new funding on specific areas like early childhood educator salaries, teacher pipeline, principal preparation, and support staff in schools.

On teachers:

  • Ensure that educator prep programs are providing strong clinical training and learning for standards-based, culturally responsive, trauma-informed teaching that can attend to students’ social, emotional, and academic development.
  • Support a pipeline of teachers of color, including by:
    • Setting data-informed goals for increasing the teacher of color workforce, and tracking and publicly sharing results.
    • Providing targeted support to schools of education serving mainly students of color.
    • Reviewing state teacher testing requirements to eliminate testing barriers to entry that are unrelated to capacity to teach effectively, and ensuring multiple ways to demonstrate competency.
    • Training district HR staff on strategies to recruit candidates of color, including recognizing implicit bias and implementing culturally responsive practices.
    • Expanding the Teaching Fellows Program to include HBCUs.
    • Developing recruitment strategies specifically aimed at attracting candidates of color to the field.
  • Provide incentives for educators to teach in high-need districts and schools and fund Grow Your Own programs.
  • Provide mentoring for new teachers, job-embedded professional development, and align pre- and in-service training. Provide additional supports in high-need districts.

On principals:

  • Require principal preparation programs to develop candidates’ capacity for effective instructional leadership, including leading education that is standards-based, personalized, culturally responsive, and attentive to children’s social, emotional, and academic development.
  • Require programs to develop principals’ capacity to support developmental transitions across school levels, from Pre-K through high school, and to engage families and the community.
  • Actively recruit candidates of color to principal preparation programs, for example by establishing Transforming Principal Preparation Program in HBCUs.
  • Provide incentives for school leaders to work in high-need schools, including salary supplements and protection against salary reductions when low-performing schools take more than one year to improve.
  • Increase the number of support staff like nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists available in schools so the principal has access to professionals who are trained to address students’ physical and mental health and out-of-school issues that impede students’ learning.
  • Leverage strong principal learning for standards-based, culturally responsive, trauma-informed leadership that can attend to social, emotional, and academic development that can support success in high-poverty schools.

On high-poverty schools:

  • Support a diverse, highly trained workforce in high poverty schools, including by:
    • Include in teacher prep and ongoing professional learning a specific focus on effective teaching and learning in high-poverty communities, including culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, whole-child approaches, trauma-informed practices, positive/restorative discipline methods, and supports that mitigate barriers posed by adverse out-of-school conditions.
    • Adopt competitive compensation and retention strategies, such as state-provided salary supplements to teachers and principals in high-poverty schools in low-wealth counties.
    • Provide teachers and leaders with special support, professional learning, and technical assistance related to working in high-poverty schools.
  • Revise the school accountability system so that it credits successful efforts in high-poverty schools and supports further success, such as by including opportunity-to-learn indicators in the state’s accountability system that can capture how students are experiencing learning (measures of school climate, chronic absenteeism, student suspensions and expulsions). 
  • Provide additional comprehensive whole-child supports, including professional staff such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers in high-poverty schools, since students in high-poverty schools and communities suffer more frequently from the stress factors that require these professional personnel and may have less access to other community-based services.
  • Provide resources, opportunities, and supports to address out-of-school barriers to learning, including by:
    • Implementing a community-schools approach.
    • Providing districts with support and flexibility to propose plans to the state that meet the schools’ specific needs and include:
      • Wraparound services meeting health, social, and other child and family needs.
      • Expanded learning time and opportunities.
      • Family and community engagement.
      • Collaborative practices and leadership.
    • Addressing food insecurity by extending the existing food programs to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in high-poverty schools. 

On assessment and accountability:

  • Align assessments and accountability with the theory of action outlined in North Carolina’s Every Student Succeeds Act state plan.
  • Train educators on formative assessment practice. Be aware that formative assessments inform instruction but would require changes before they could be used as part of high-stakes summative assessments.
  • Amend the current accountability system, including the information provided by the North Carolina Dashboard and the accountability metrics in the NC’s Every Student Succeeds Act state plan, to include measures of progress and students’ opportunities to learn, such as:
    • Student access to competent and well-trained teachers and leaders.
    • Suspension and expulsion rates — and remove zero-tolerance policies.
    • Measures of school climate, with special attention to students facing the most barriers to opportunity.
    • Chronic absenteeism — and create approaches to intervene early and support attendance. 
  • Include student growth as a separate indicator.
  • Provide more and intentional supports to lower-performing schools.

On supporting school improvement:

  • Build back up the capacity of the Department of Public Instruction to support low-performing (which are also high-poverty) schools.
  • Provide resources, opportunities, and supports for low-performing and high-poverty schools to address out-of-school barriers to learning, including through providing supports for a community-school approach, like:
    • Funding for a full-time community-schools director/coordinator to assess local needs and assets and to integrate social, academic, and health supports (including for mental health) into the school.
    • Access to technical assistance to plan and implement a community-schools approach.
    • Expand the state’s current Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model (part of the Healthy Schools initiative within the NCDPI), which schools can use as a foundation for implementing community-schools approaches.
  • Provide statewide and/or regional support to help schools and districts select high-quality, standards-aligned, culturally responsive core curriculum resources and to prepare teachers to use those resources effectively to teach a diverse student body.
  • Extend supports to schools to implement Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

On monitoring compliance:

  • Appoint a panel of education experts to help the court monitor the state’s plans, initiatives, and progress in meeting the Leandro requirements.
  • Require annual reports of plans and progress on meeting the Leandro requirements from the North Carolina State Board of Education and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

NCECF and Pathways will continue to report on the Leandro court case and the progress the state makes on the proposed plan of action. 

Mandy Ableidinger

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Deputy Director.